All Todd Snider wants to do is play music, to sing for people and write songs. All the time.
The headliner of this year's Tucson Folk Festival has found that it's better for everyone if he focuses on that and not much else. His managers and publicity people work to keep him in that bubble.
"I got a guitar because I was trying to beat depression," Snider explains. "I don't, like, have to do business-y stuff, so I kinda don't. I mostly stick to art. The bills don't come here. Only rarely do I get involved in money. I had my money in a coffee can when I got my first record contract. Jimmy Buffett was like, 'You should give that can to an accountant.'"
This makes what he'll talk about during his Saturday workshop at the festival, "Everything You Need to Know About the Music Business," a real source of curiosity.
"Every time I meet young people, and they want advice about the music business, I'm like, 'I don't know anything about it, man,'" Snider admits. "I write songs all day. I'm practicing; I'm making a set list. I play guitar and piano and harmonica all day long."
And perhaps that is the most important thing for would-be Idols to know.
The 24th Annual Tucson Folk Festival is, as always, free, thanks to the volunteer Tucson Kitchen Musicians Association. Many of Tucson's finest local acoustic musicians will perform across the festival's four stages. While Snider headlines on Saturday night, the festival will also feature bluegrass musicians Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, Grammy winners for their children's album Bon Appétit! Musical Food Fun, on Saturday evening. Folk icon Eric Andersen will perform Sunday evening.
Todd Snider has a well-earned reputation as a crowd pleaser. He follows the wry tradition of Woody Guthrie and Will Rogers, but with a postmodern irony and no small dose of bar talk. His songs are hilarious and insightful. That's evidenced by the song from his 1994 debut, Songs for the Daily Planet, that first got him national attention: "Talkin' Seattle Grunge Rock Blues." It's also evidenced by a song from his upcoming Yep Roc album, The Excitement Plan, produced by Don Was and due in June: "America's Favorite Pastime" is an account of how Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Doc Ellis once threw a no-hitter on acid.
Many of Snider's performances (including the first time he played "America's Favorite Pastime" for Was) are available on YouTube. His fans also maintain an extensive site, www.eighteenminutes.com, which publishes set lists and photos from performances, lyrics and more.
Snider's decision to become a singer/songwriter was precipitous, coming out of a hopelessness that led to enlightenment.
"I was sitting on this roof in California. These guys had told me that their parents said I couldn't stay on their couch no more," Snider says ruefully. "I was sitting there drinking on this roof, and these cops came, and I realized that they were surrounding me, you know? Somebody thought I was going to jump off this roof. I saw them and I thought, 'Man, I can do anything I want. I can do anything.'
"In that moment," he recalls, "I decided I want to make up songs and be a singer: 'I wanna be a singer.' I felt like I got to make that decision, because I didn't have any goals or plans or money. I don't know why, but it was like, 'OK, I'm gonna be a singer; what's the plan? There isn't one!'"
Eric Andersen is one of the heavies of modern folk music. Coming out of Greenwich Village in the early '60s, his peers were Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and young Bob Dylan. Highly literate songs like "Thirsty Boots," "Close the Door Lightly When You Go" and "Violets of Dawn" became standards.
"Most musicians went to New York for the folk revival," he explains by phone. "I went to San Francisco, because I was interested in the Beat writers more than I was in Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Tom Paxton found me in a coffeehouse where I was playing with Janis Joplin and Dino Valente (Quicksilver Messenger Service founder and writer of "Get Together"). He brought me back to New York for that beginning songwriting scene. So I was informed from another set of influences."
While his early traditional work would have been enough to secure a place in music history, it was his masterpiece 1972 pop album, Blue River, featuring admirer Joni Mitchell on the title cut, that cemented his reputation as one of the most articulate and profound songwriters of the period.
His 1989 comeback, Ghosts Upon the Road, raised the bar again. His voice had deepened, and his writing, still poignant and sharply observant, had darkened, tinged by his years living in Europe.
He's followed that with a slow but steady stream of albums that have included covers of tunes written by his fellow '60s songwriters and works Andersen co-wrote with the late Townes Van Zandt.
Andersen is currently working on a novel and has completed an essay for the 50th anniversary of William Burroughs' Naked Lunch. Later this summer, he will travel to Paris to headline the musical portion of a tribute to the book that, along with Kerouac's On the Road and Ginsberg's Howl, defined Beat literature.
Meanwhile, at the Tucson Folk Festival, Andersen will be reunited for several songs with bassist Harvey Brooks, who played on Andersen's early Vanguard albums. Brooks now lives in Tucson.
Andersen will also conduct a Sunday workshop on songwriting, a craft that he acknowledges is tough to teach.
"On the face of it, it's a magical process," he admits. "It's very difficult to explain anything like that. You have to be in it, and when you're there, you think you could explain it to anyone. Then, of course, when the song is written, the bubble pops, and you're wondering, 'What the hell did I just do?' We're going to try to recover those memories."